With the term Frictionless IT, I mean an enterprise IT that just works, reshaped after the experience offered by modern consumer-grade public cloud services, which business users are growing to expect.
What does Frictionless IT have to do with us? Simple: if we don’t start moving towards Frictionless IT, we all risk irrelevance.
Current generations of IT professionals are experiencing a growing disconnect between Enterprise IT and Personal IT.
- Enterprise IT remains reliable, but in most cases slow to procure, complex to use, and overall frustrating. Think about your expense report system.
- Personal IT is evolving into a set of instantaneously available, incredibly easy to understand and blazing fast at executing the tasks that they are supposed to execute. Think about Gmail, Dropbox, Evernote, IFTTT, and the plethora of other public cloud services that we all interact with on daily basis through our phones, tablets, and laptops.
The first problem with this split brain between Personal and Enterprise IT is that our brain is exactly the same, inside and outside the office. Any interaction with this emerging Personal IT raises the bar on how the IT experience should be. The more we use Gmail, Dropbox, Evernote and IFTTT in our personal life, the more our expectations grow for a similar experience at work. We wonder more and more, “if my Personal IT is such a breeze to use, why does my Enterprise IT have to be miserable?”
The second problem is that current generations can endure frustrating Enterprise IT only because that’s all that they have experienced for decades. New generations will not be so forgiving. The kids in college today, and those who just started their first job in a new, exciting startup, are growing used to only one kind of IT experience: the frictionless one.
At some point in the near future, these kids will land more reliable and less stressful jobs in large enterprises. It will not be just one or two individuals with a different set of expectations joining a typical bank or insurance company. It will be a whole generation that permeates every department of an end user organisation, from marketing to engineering, with a completely different set of demands and expectations. The overwhelming majority of IT organisations, and the traditional solution providers that support them, are completely unprepared to meet that demand.
I believe that at least three ingredients are necessary to meet the demand for frictionless IT:
Ease of use
A key enabler for a Frictionless IT is a smooth user experience (UX). The user experience is defined by the quality of an interaction between the human and the system, and it takes place when you deploy, integrate, customize and use enterprise systems. Intelligent installers and self-contained binaries, simplified back-end architectures, supported out-of-the-box plug-ins, modular front-ends, consistent UIs and even coherent documentation all contribute to improve the quality of the UX. However, very few organisations in the world look at these aspects from a holistic standpoint and take a user-centric approach. For example, the user interface (UI), in both commercial-off-the-shelf and custom-made applications, is one of the most overlooked aspects of enterprise software.
If you think that investing in state-of-the-art UI is unnecessary, or not worth the effort, think again. The primary reason why some public cloud offerings become overnight successes at a planetary scale is their intuitive UI. In our Personal IT we are already getting used to intuitiveness, and the demand for it is supported by the broad market offering. We have already reached the point that when an app on our smartphones is too complex to use in the first few minutes, we simply delete it and download an alternative. There’s no second chance for the app that is not frictionless.
Now let’s go back to the upcoming generation of technology consumers. Even among the most technical of them, some may have never built a computer by screwing a motherboard to the case (like many of us did, including me), used a command prompt or plugged in a network cable. Those users will expect that installing software will be as frictionless as deploying a virtual appliance, plugging a cable will be as frictionless as drawing a line on a service catalog UI and so on.
If the IT organisations of tomorrow don’t deliver that kind of ease of use, future generations of business users will simply circumvent them, more than today, relying on external cloud service providers. And to meet the expectations of future generations, the UX in enterprise software has to dramatically improve.
A second key enabler for a Frictionless IT is speed. If the interface is pretty but you still need to take 20 steps (or 20 weeks) to get the job done, it’s not frictionless. We are already know that speed deeply influences the UX, to the point of impacting search engine rankings, thanks to the enormous research conducted around aspects like loading time in web development. And yet, it took a lot for the industry to realize that the same human brain which doesn’t tolerate a very slow page load very likely won’t tolerate a very slow enterprise IT experience.
Speed has become an increasingly important factor in the last five years, to the point that the industry constantly mentions agility as the most desired attribute for business and development models. Of course agility is not just speed, but speed is a very big part of it. Which is one of the many reasons why, for example, we are seeing a shift of interest from virtual machines (VMs) to application containers.
Operating system and application virtualization are as old as (and in some cases, older than) hardware virtualization. More than ten years ago, the emerging virtualization industry was rich with technology startups focused on all three approaches. As we know, eventually the mainstream audience preferred VMs over what we used to call operating system partitions and application layers, but today we are experiencing a second coming of the latter technologies because customers’ business needs are changing and evolving, as they always do.
Ten years ago, IT organizations’ primary challenge was modernizing the data center while maximizing the ROI on existing hardware equipment, and hardware virtualization brilliantly helped to accomplish the goal. Today, IT organizations’ primary challenge is addressing the business demand as fast as possible, because there’s now a competitor that never existed before: the public cloud provider. Application containers can be deployed in seconds rather than the minutes needed for VMs, significantly shrinking the reaction time for a variety of scenarios, including scaling out a web application to address an unexpected traffic peak and avoiding a fatally slow loading time.
A third enabler for Frictionless IT is seamless integration between enterprise products and the ancillary services necessary to make it work or unlock their full potential. No successful software or hardware comes without a certain degree of integration with the existing enterprise IT environment, but the extent of that integration makes or breaks the UX, in turn impacting on users’ productivity.
Integration can happen at the back-end level and at the front-end level. The latter is rarely considered, so I’ll focus on that in this post. To clarify the deeply underestimated importance of front-end integration, I always use the analogy of the smart calendar.
In many cases, in preparation for a business meeting we always check a couple of apps on our smartphones: the calendar app, to know when, where, and how we need to meet; and the map app, to know how to get there. In a perfect world, especially if the business meeting is a delicate negotiation with parties you’re meeting for the first time, we might want to check at least another couple of apps: LinkedIn, to learn more about the people that we are going to meet; and Twitter, to learn more about what those people have to say about topics that may be relevant to the negotiation. Out of the four, it is the last two apps that could provide the intelligence necessary to successfully close the negotiation. But because the information is spread across so many different apps, which dramatically increases the friction, we limit ourself to checking the first two, the indispensable ones. Crucially, because of the friction, we don’t check the information that could be most valuable for the meeting, which deeply impacts our effectiveness.
Thankfully, there’s now a better way. A wave of so called smart calendar apps are emerging (and rapidly being acquired), with their biggest value being the ability to blend the front ends of the aforementioned four apps into a single, consistent UI that dramatically reduces friction. If you have ever tried smart calendars like Tempo or Sunrise, you have an idea.
Enterprise IT has to follow the same path: improve integration to minimize the friction (which in this case can appear as a steep learning curve) and maximise the productivity of the enterprise audience.
Ease of use, speed, and integration are key ingredients to dramatically improve the enterprise software (and hardware) UX. But what’s the difference from the past, you might ask. User experience has been considered as a key differentiator since the late 60s by companies like IBM. And there are plenty of ROI calculators showing that UX has a quantifiable impact on business. The difference is that now enterprise users have choice, and enterprise IT organizations have competitors. And the choice is incredibly broad and incredibly accessible. If IT organisations fail to deliver Frictionless IT, lines of business (LoB) will simply go elsewhere and get the job done with the tool that is most convenient (simplicity, not cost) out of the many available.
A LoB doesn’t care about security, compliance and integration issues, nor do they trouble themselves with the politics driving the IT organization choices towards a specific solution versus another. A LoB only wants to get the job done within the deadline. And if the corporate policies get in the way, they will be often circumvented. In turn, if the corporate policies get circumvented and the tools that empower a LoB are provided by external cloud service providers, in the long term the role of the IT organisation will become less relevant. To stay relevant in the eyes of upcoming generations, both vendors and their clients must recognise the ongoing transformation, anticipate the upcoming demand, and adapt.
GM, Management Strategy
This piece was originally published on the Red Hat Management Strategy blog.